KHARTOUM, March 12 (Reuters) - Cattle raiders in South Sudan launched a major assault on a rival tribe, causing heavy loss of life, officials said on Monday, as the government began a disarmament plan to halt the tit-for-tat attacks that have torn the new nation.
Members of Jonglei state's Murle tribe attacked people from the Lou Nuer group in an area near the Ethiopian border over the weekend, South Sudan's military spokesman Philip Aguer said. Citing reports from local officials, he said that up to 300 people may have been killed in the raids.
South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in July under a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between north and south. It was a moment of euphoria for many southerners, but the young government has struggled to assert control over a territory roughly the size of France, awash with guns and hit by violence between competing tribes.
Aguer said violence hit the Wanding area. "The Murle were attacking the Nuer there," he said. "They took a large number of cattle, and many people were killed."
The governor of Jonglei state and other local officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The attack was apparently in response to Lou Nuer raids on Murle settlements in December last year, including on the town of Pibor, which killed hundreds of people.
Two United Nations officials confirmed that the raids against the Lou Nuer camps had taken place, but said they could not yet confirm specific numbers of casualties.
A lack of roads, electricity and stable communications complicate the task of confirming casualty figures in South Sudan, where tribal violence often breaks out in remote regions of what is one of the world's least developed countries.
The war with the north, fought for all but a few years between 1955 and 2005, also left the country awash with weapons. About 2 million people died in the conflict.
Aguer said the latest tribal violence would not halt a disarmament campaign which the government launched in Jonglei state on Monday.
"All of them, the Murle, the Dinka, the Nuer - all the tribes in Jonglei state carrying illegal arms will have to be disarmed completely," he said, listing the state's three largest tribes.
"Whatever time it will take the army to collect, they will continue doing it," he said. "The responsibility of protection of civilians belongs to the government, not the individuals."
He said the army was capable of both preventing further attacks and collecting weapons.
Many members of the Murle tribe complain the army is dominated by the Dinka and Nuer tribes, however, highlighting the difficulties of disarmament. Aid workers say previous disarmament campaigns have been poorly managed and have failed to halt violence. (Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz; editing by David Stamp)